The first prize The EcoChic Design Award 2014-15 in Partnership with Shanghai Tang Winner Kévin Germanier. Photo Courtesy Kevin Germanier
Sustainability is a trend on the rise, as green campaigns continue to shine a spotlight on the serious issues affecting our natural environment.
Recycling plastic bottles, newspapers and raw materials is a process that many people understand. But while thrift shopping for clothes may be popular with fashionistas, the idea of using recycled clothing and used materials in fashion on a mass scale has a way to go in appealing to consumers.
In 2007, the academic journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) published a review outlining the extent of environmental damage caused by the clothing industry.
Penned by Dr. Luz Claudio, a tenured associate professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, the article argues that globalization and the cheapening cost of clothing production has led to consumers viewing fashion as disposable, and nicknames this phenomenon ‘fast fashion’—the clothing equivalent of fast food.
According to Claudio, producing man-made fibers is “an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil,” which in turn causes the release of emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride—all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.
The production of natural fibers is not exempt from criticism, as pesticides for cotton crops account for a large percentage of all pesticides used in the U.S. And the toxins in fabric dyes can also cause some serious environmental damage.
The power of education
As a reaction against the negative impact of the clothing industry, Claudio says a growing number of manufacturers and organizations are embracing eco-friendly fashion as an alternative.
Sustainability in fashion encompasses several notions, including eco-friendly materials, ethical sourcing of resources and labor, recycling of old clothes and waste, and reducing the amount of energy used in the manufacture of sustainable clothing.
One organization working to shed light on the importance of sustainability in fashion is Redress, a Hong-Kong based Nongovernmental Organization. Established in 2007—coincidentally, the same year as Claudio’s review—Redress seeks to reduce textile waste, pollution, and water and energy consumption.
Founder and CEO of Redress, Christina Dean, says research indicates that fashion designers are responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the environmental and economic impact of a product.
Such a high percentage suggests that educating designers is an important step towards making the fashion industry sustainable from the source.
Turning to education to assist the sustainability movement, Redress founded the EcoChic Design Award in 2011, a competition with the goal of encouraging emerging fashion designers and students to create mainstream clothing with minimal textile waste.
“This finding indicates that fashion designers are very influential and powerful at influencing the sustainability of a product,” Dean says.
“However, at the same time, we have found that in general there is a lack of education for fashion designers about sustainability, and this is why we organize the competition. It allows us to engage on a much deeper and lasting level with fashion designers to make a significant impact on their careers and, as a ripple effect, on the environment.”
Students leading the way
Enter Kévin Germanier, UK winner of the 2014/2015 EcoChic Design Award.
After completing a bachelor’s degree in fashion design, Germanier decided to leave his native Switzerland to pursue his career and began studying at Central Saint Martins (CSM), a constituent college of the University of the Arts London.
Prior to entering the competition, he had assisted with Alexis Mabille Haute Couture in Paris, and was working as a freelance designer for Victim Street Fashion by Meihui Lui, a Taiwanese designer.
Lui, one of the judges of the competition, encouraged Germanier to apply.
“I had always been interested in sustainability but when I started working for Meihui, my interest in sustainable fashion became stronger and stronger. She believed that it would be a great experience for me to apply and… here we are,” Germanier says.
“I am glad she pushed me, because so far it has been an intense and amazing journey.”
For his EcoChic Design Award entry, Germanier says he was inspired by the past, present and future of Chinese culture. To explore this, he combined upcycling (the process of converting and waste and discarded materials into something useful) and reconstruction design techniques (he process of making new clothes from previously worn garments or preformed products) to create new garments using surplus army textiles and industrial textile waste.
The collection mixes traditional hand techniques such as weaving, knitting, dyeing and embroideries with a modern twist. Germanier says he transformed Swiss military wool blankets and polyethylene into more than 15 new textiles.
“The selection of fabrics has been important for me: wool blankets represent the tradition and the past, in contrast to polyethylene, which is a symbol of modernity,” Germanier says.
“Both of these themes have also been used as an inspiration for the finishing of the garments. Some of them have been made in a very classical way, compared to others which have a more contemporary style.”
The collection honors the anatomy of Chinese women of all ages, and Germanier says he researched thoroughly the way different generations of Chinese women dress.
The international panel of judges for the 2014/2015 award included sustainable fashion designer Orsola de Castro; Hong-Kong based designer Dorian Ho; vice chairman of Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium (SFBC) Anderson Lee; creative consigliere of ShangHai Tang, Raffaele Borriello; and chief editor of WGSN China, Yvonne Luk.
EcoChic entries were scored in four categories with each with equal weighting according to creativity and originality; sustainability; marketability and workmanship.
Germanier’s use of upcycled old Swiss army blankets impressed the judges, as it demonstrated the ethos of sustainable fashion—that waste can be reinvented as couture or high fashion.
His use of a steady waste stream was also viewed favourably—meaning that the collection had scalability as a consideration. Furthermore, Germanier contributed the garments with fewer seams in other to save energy during the production stage.
In regard to the Chinese influence, Germanier integrated feedback he received from Chinese friends about ideal silhouettes, drawing on modern aesthetics to create the desired illusion.
Looking to the future
Sustainability in fashion is growing in popularity, with several designers such as Stella McCartney, Lucy Tammam, Mandy Kordal, Catherine Litke, Orsola de Castro and Christopher Raeburn incorporating these values into their collections.
In a company statement, British designer Stella McCartney says the brand is committed to exploring new and innovative ways to become more sustainable and take responsibility for the environmental impact of its products.
According to McCartney, no products contain leather, fur or animal products of any kind, and are PVC free. Similarly, the company does not use animal testing, and up to 70 percent of products are made entirely by hand—avoiding the ‘fast fashion’ label attached to many other clothing brands.
Company offices and stores are powered by renewable energy, and the brand also has textile recycling systems in place to recycle as much waste as possible.
Italian designer Orsola de Castro is a well-known sustainability advocate, and her label From Somewhere claims to bring quality and craftsmanship to “exquisite rubbish”. In conjunction with the British Fashion Council, de Castro is the co-founder of Estethica, the annual sustainable fashion showcase at London Fashion Week.
De Castro told The Guardian last year that when Estethica was launched in 2006, she was “the only one speaking the language”.
“We were the first to look at the design first and give sustainability equal importance, offering designers like Christopher Raeburn genuine incubation,” she says.
“Initially I had to sit here, to sell and pull in press. Now they come to see us.”
Swedish mega-department store H&M is an example of a mainstream clothing brand taking pains to incorporate sustainability into the life-cycle of its products.
The global company produces an annual Conscious Actions Sustainability Report, providing stakeholders and the public with a performance overview that takes into account elements such as anti-corruption, human rights, diversity, responsible marketing, and employee satisfaction.
High fashion has also acknowledged the importance of sustainability by incorporating eco-friendly designs into widely-covered events. Recent fashion weeks in both London and Hong Kong featured sustainable designers and eco-friendly designs on the runway.
Hong Kong Fashion Week even hosted the Ford Design Challenge in partnership with Redress, where EcoChic finalists were invited to create an outfit in one day, using recycled materials from Ford vehicles.
But while sustainability was highly visible in London and Hong Kong, New York Fashion Week did not attempt to match its international counterparts.
David Dietz, founder of online sustainable fashion retailer Modavanti, has criticised the organisers of NYFW for ignoring the increasing consumer demand for products that are both environmentally friendly and ethically sourced.
“An industry that survives on determining what is cool is at risk of becoming passé. Strangely the wound is self-inflicted; fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world after oil and gas. Now a movement has taken hold to make fashion more sustainable,” Dietz writes.
“From major fashion houses like Gucci and Stella McCartney to hundreds of up-and-coming brands, companies of all sizes are beginning to respond to the increasing consumer demand for products that fit their style and their values.”
Dietz says that as the paradigm of luxury shifts to sustainability and conscious consumerism, hundreds of younger designers have responded on their own, making “making beautiful eco-friendly and ethical fashion”.
It is a trend that Redress is keen to encourage. For the upcoming 2015/2016 EcoChic Design Award, Dean says the competition will expand to accept entries from all of Asia and Europe, which will hopefully influence new eyes and ears.
Along with a larger geographical reach, the upcoming competition marks the fifth anniversary of the award, and Redress plans on celebrating the achievements of previous semi-finalists and finalists who have continued in sustainable design.
“What we’re seeing is that many of our alumni have since launched or further developed their own sustainable brands since taking part in our competitions, so they are staying true to their passions and are striving forwards with the previous support—and education—that we have given them,” Dean says.
As first-prize winner of the EcoChic Award, Germanier will design the first upcycled sustainable clothing collection for Chinese fashion label Shanghai Tang, which is based in Hong Kong.
“I feel so honored to work for such a luxurious brand as Shanghai Tang. Most fashion designers or students dream about working in Paris or London. In my case, I had always wanted to work and develop my creativity in Asia. I feel like Asia has so much history and inspiration and I am fascinated by it,” Germanier says.
When asked about his future in sustainable fashion, Germanier is enthusiastic.
“If I could choose my destiny, I would love to work as a creative director of a leading fashion house I like and bring the values of sustainability to luxe,” he says.
With the future of sustainable fashion in the hands of young designers like Germanier, both the fashion industry and the environment are likely to benefit.